Tennessee Amber Alert jars smartphone users

Tennessee Amber Alert jars smartphone users

May 28th, 2013 by The Tennessean in Local Regional News

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Questions about alerts received on phones should be directed to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST. To report incidents to TBI, call 1-800-TBI-KIDs or email tipstotbi@tn.gov.

Amber Alert

A police alert about a missing Murfreesboro boy - sent to smartphones at 2:15 a.m. - blasted Middle Tennesseans out of bed early on May 20, sending some to social media to question how they got the alert and what good they could have done from bed.

The Amber Alert became the first to hit Tennessee cellphones after midnight. The federal government and wireless providers approved the new automatic messaging system this year after lengthy lobbying by police and child advocates.

Smyrna police found the boy unharmed and arrested his father within three hours, but not before locals dismissed the alert and turned to Twitter. Some groused about the alert or wondered how they could have helped police.

"I was on alert to notify authorities if matching car drove through my bedroom," one local woman tweeted, adding, "Hope all is OK."

Even the state's former alert coordinator was startled awake.

"My first thought, always, is: 'Oh, no,'" said Margie Quin, a special agent in charge with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. "I know that these are really held for the most egregious cases."

Quin recalled the early days of the alerts, starting in 2003, when they came across via television and radio broadcasts. That technology rankled some, too.

"People went berserk: 'How dare you interrupt?'" Quin said.

Yet she long has promoted the program -- named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996 -- as a way to engage the public with police work that benefits from information tips.

"They were probably surprised by [the alert], and wondering how in the heck that was coming through, but we haven't had any complaints," Quin said. "It is a great way to continue that partnership with the public. That's what Amber Alerts are all about: The public is the eyes and ears."

To be considered for an Amber Alert, a missing child case must meet three initial requirements: a victim younger than 18, the threat of "imminent danger" and an available description of the child, suspect or vehicle.

Alerts long have gone out through television, weather radios, interstate signs and lottery kiosks. Voluntary text messages began in 2005.

The new no-cost alerts go out automatically to smartphones with location software. They can be silenced within phone settings, but authorities hope the warnings won't be ignored. They have vowed to continue using alerts sparingly.

Tennessee authorities have issued 87 Amber Alerts since the program began in 2003, including five this year, according to TBI. Quin said using them too often could make them less effective.

The recent Murfreesboro alert asked people to watch out for a maroon Chevy Impala. Police said the driver, Michael Swaney, took his 8-year-old son after attacking the boy's mother with a switchblade knife.

Smyrna police caught him within three hours, but it wasn't because of the Amber Alert. They received information from Murfreesboro police that he was at a relative's home. He faces a charge of aggravated assault.